Silver Screen: The Mechanic **1/2
In the eighties, the heydey of the action movie, the stars were almost literally larger than life. Schwarzenegger, the unassailable prototype-- and always far superior to the hit-and-miss-but-mostly-miss Stallone-- was the hulking hero you could never hope to be, not even with a hundred Charles Atlases feeding you a thousand raw-egg shakes and spotting you on a million bench presses. That was the point.
Thirty years later, our badasses are more human. Like Bruce Willis's John McClane, the eighties' great exception and everyman hero, they look a little less intimidating, sound a little more familiar, and certainly seem endangered by all the flying fists and bullets in a way that the impervious Arnold never was. The modern model is Matt Damon's Jason Bourne, who doesn't crash through walls but thinks his way around them, is a master of efficiency and quick decisions, and a flood of information.
Jason Statham, however, is a throwback, a big brawny guy best suited to punching his way out of problems. It's carried him through two franchises (The Transporter, Crank) and made him the lone heir to the he-man legacy, a notion affirmed by his prominence in Stallone's nostalgic Expendables.
Statham is a one-trick pony, but it's a decent trick, and put to good use in Simon West's serviceable remake of the 1972 Charles Bronson vehicle The Mechanic. Statham stars as Arthur Bishop, the mechanic of the title, and though he does spend some time working on a vintage roadster, the grease monkey moniker is assassin-industry code for hired killer.
Bishop is the top man for a wealthy cabal, led by prim businessman Dean (Tony Goldwyn, a reliably good villain), that makes people disappear-- for a hefty fee, of course. We first meet Bishop using a little more brains than brawn-- Statham, showing off his range!-- to bump off a well-guarded Latino whose armed escort of thugs signals that he's a drug dealer or a dictator, the kind of disposable foreign stereotype that serves as the fodder for this kind of entertainment. It's a nifty opening sequence that kicks off this briskly paced but, by Statham standards, almost demure shoot 'em up.
Back in America, our trans-Atlantic hero is given a second, far more unpleasant assignment: kill his mentor, Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland), whose alleged betrayal of the company led to a loss of cash and more than a few good bad men. Bishop obliges, but the pseudo-patricide haunts him. To make amends, he seeks out McKenna's screwup son, the violent and hot-tempered Steve (Ben Foster), and trains him in the ways of professional killing.
None of this is exceptional in the slightest. The tutor-tyro relationship among assassins, still novel when Bronson costarred in the original with the unseemly Jan Michael Vincent and great character actor Keenan Wynn, has been done dozens of times, most interestingly in Luc Besson's Leon (a.k.a. The Professional) with a twelve-year-old Natalie Portman as the trainee murderer.
That said, the execution-- pardon the pun-- is solid, and the pairing of reliable badass Statham and Foster, who's at his best playing greasy, stubbly lowlives, is appealing. The Mechanic is as character-driven as an action movie gets, which is to say only slightly but just enough, and the performances help carry the film as it moves through a series of twists just about anyone could see coming. West and Richard Wenk, who updated the screenplay by Lewis John Carlino, makes an undeniably slick, modern action movie, but the pacing and moral murkiness retains the air of seventies cinema, and The Mechanic is relatively restrained leading up to a bangup action climax worthy of the buildup.